PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte took full advantage of his state visit to China to demonstrate his independence from the United States and international public opinion.
In signing 13 new bilateral agreements with Chinese President Xi Jinping and agreeing to restart direct talks over the South China Sea, the Filipino firebrand drove home the “separation from the United States” he declared to an audience at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
For the outgoing Obama administration, Duterte’s “Pivot to China” is more than a slap in the face: it is a clear signal from the Philippines’ new leader that the delicate approach Washington has taken in responding to his previous provocations has not impressed him in the slightest.
Since Duterte took office at the end of June and gave his police carte blanche to murder their way to a drug-free Philippines, the U.S. government has been muted in its criticism and even more reticent to respond to unprecedented verbal attacks on President Obama and the State Department.
Even following Duterte’s latest outburst, senior American diplomat Daniel Russel called the Philippines a “close ally” and sought to minimize the fallout from the Philippine president’s China visit. It’s not surprising. When Duterte called Obama a “son of a whore” and glibly compared himself to Hitler in explaining his desire slaughter millions of drug addicts and dealers, American officials merely stated that they are “troubled” by the outbursts.
The European Union, which has also found itself on the receiving end of Duterte’s wrath, has continued to pledge support for his country’s anti-drugs effort and did not bother to cancel the EU-Philippines Business Summit that was held in Manila on Oct 4. At the same time American and European officials try to subtly pressure the new Filipino authorities to put a stop to the state sanctioned killings, they undercut their own efforts by telegraphing to the tough-talking Duterte that there will be no real consequences for his provocations.
International organizations are having an equally difficult time taking a firm stance. The International Criminal Court, even as it considers opening a case against Duterte, has pulled its punches in condemning his actions expressing “concern” about reports of “alleged” extrajudicial killings.
On Oct 10, Vera da Costa e Silva of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) congratulated Duterte and the Philippines with an ill-judged tweet for its upcoming implementation of a smoking ban.
— Vera daCosta e Silva (@vera_dacosta) October 10, 2016
That praise was offered despite Duterte’s withering criticism of Ban Ki Moon just one month earlier, in which he called the UN Secretary-General “a fool“ following criticism of the killing spree that has now claimed more 3,500 lives in the Philippines since July.
In the FCTC’s defence though, the organization has a long history of backing authoritarian leaders with strong anti-tobacco policies (like Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, or encouraging the Syrian regime earlier this year to crack down on smoking in the country). These recurring links with violent, dictatorial regimes have done little to disprove accusations that its upcoming COP7 talks in India are lacking in transparency and that the body’s processes are undemocratic.
By lending outside approval to regimes like those in Damascus, Ashgabat, and now Manila, international bodies run the risk of distracting attention away from crises like those brought about by Duterte’s blood-drenched drug war.
Duterte, of course, knows he has a strong hand: even the most sheepish of criticism has thus far withered away once met with his barrages of abuse. Like many of his fellow strongmen, he knows he can toy with Washington and Brussels – and even gamble the aid the Philippines receives from the European Union and United States – by threatening to throw his lot in with China and thus fatally undermine the U.S. security strategy in the Asia-Pacific.
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The visit to Beijing offered just the latest in a series of dark warnings over cooperation between American and Filipino armed forces and the potential for the Philippines to turn toward Beijing and Moscow for military hardware and trade ties. Duterte has not yet gone so far as to give in to China’s claims on the Scarborough shoal islands, but his eagerness to cooperate on South China Sea issues was clearly well received by the Chinese leadership.
With the White House unwilling to pick a fight with what used to be a key ally in the months before Obama leaves offices, the main risk Duterte runs in courting China and alienating everyone else remains a loss of domestic support.
Of course, it seems hard to believe that he would be able to entirely undo a 70-year-old alliance after less than four months in office, even if that does appear to be the thrust of Duterte’s discourse in China. The drug war remains popular, but unilateral concessions to China and a full breakoff of the country’s “special relationship” with the United States would be far less so. There is institutional resistance to the Beijing-Moscow overture as well: particularly in terms of defense and procurements (where the relationship with the United States has been developed over decades); cash-strapped Filipino officials are unlikely to be as cooperative as Duterte might expect.
Those internal hurdles, however, may only hold up for so long. If the goal of the United States is to keep the Philippines on its side of the showdown with China over the Asia-Pacific, the deferential it (and the rest of the international community) have taken has merely succeeded in strengthening Duterte’s position. Weak-willed responses do nothing to discredit his most extreme policies in the eyes of the Filipino people; if anything, they merely prove that he is right.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent